I stood outside my kids’ bedroom door, smiling as I listened to them wrestle and laugh while they were
supposed to be putting their pajamas on.
During the day, I’d checked off a handful of items on my to-do list, I’d gotten my kids where they needed to go on time (well, mostly on time), and no one was sick or seriously injured. Today seemed like a win. But then my smile slipped, and that relief and gratification started to fade away. New feelings of emptiness and guilt settled deep in my gut.
Here’s What I Realized
After a full day of being a mom to my sweet young kids, I didn’t take the time to stop and be fully present with them. I wasn’t enjoying motherhood.
Instead, my thoughts of daily tasks and to-do’s took control of my day.
I didn’t tune into the excitement in my daughter’s voice as she told me all about her solo in the upcoming school concert. How did I forget to pull dinner out of the freezer again?
I missed taking a pause during our naptime story to appreciate my 3-year old’s dimple that’s already starting to fade away. Just two more minutes until freedom!
I didn’t enjoy the 15 blissful minutes where all three of my kids played with kinetic sand – without fighting. What a mess! I’d better go get the vacuum.
Why Regret Keeps Coming Back
I start out every day with the best intentions of finding time to connect with and enjoy my time with these little people who also happen to be my favorite people.
Papers to sign, field trip money to send, lunches to be made – and that’s just the first three minutes of the day. So much to do and never enough time to do it all.
When you’re caught up in the current of day-to-day tasks, it can feel more like being pulled in by an undertow. But I don’t want to spend motherhood pulled under and dragged around by all the doing at the expense of being with my kids.
So my question became: What’s the secret to enjoying motherhood when the daily work of motherhood drags you down?
The Biggest Hurdle to Enjoying Motherhood
From my training as a family therapist, I know that our brains are wired for survival. They keep us going, even under stress. This means we can perform many tasks throughout the day without thinking much about them. In the span of 10 minutes, we can chop veggies for dinner, mediate a sibling fight, and restart the laundry in the dryer (again).
What makes this possible is our implicit – or automatic – memory.
Implicit memory helps us be the masterful multitaskers that we need to be – like when the stomach flu hits at 2:00 am and we have to become a carpet cleaner, nurse, and laundress all at once. But implicit memory can also get us into trouble.
When we engage in thoughts and behaviors from implicit (subconscious) memory on a regular basis, we find ourselves in a state of mom auto-pilot. In other words, we’re productive but not awake or intentionally engaged in enjoying motherhood.
In essence, our brains are designed to survive and function under stress, but they cannot thrive under stress. But thanks to recent brain research, we now know an effective and powerful way to take charge of this mom autopilot mode so we can get back to enjoying motherhood.
The Secret to Enjoying Motherhood, According to Science
Most moms want to live intentionally and spend more time in being mode and less in doing mode. We want to enjoy time with our kids and not just view them as a set of tasks to be checked off.
The good news? Science has found a powerful key to slowing down and enjoying your child. It’s something we are all capable of, and we can do it anywhere at any time.
This is a buzzword nowadays because of how powerful it can be, but mindfulness just means being aware of the current moment in a kind and non-biased way. This could be as simple as putting a thought into words or paying attention to your bodily sensations. (More on what that really means in a minute.)
When you tune into the here and now by noticing thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, you engage an important area of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain helps you regulate your behaviors and emotions. In other words, that part of the brain allows us to be the calm, responsive, and loving moms we want to be. But when you operate on mom auto-pilot, your pre-frontal cortex is not engaged, so you’re more likely to be reactive, tuned out, and stressed.
Looking back on the days when I’ve found myself in mom auto-pilot mode, this explains why I get to the end of the day and feel that tug of regret for how the day went.
3 Simple, But Powerful Steps Every Busy Mom Can Take to Enjoy Motherhood
Here are three quick and easy mindfulness tricks even busy moms can squeeze in periodically throughout the day.
These techniques will help you move from doing to being in the moment, but their magic goes even further than that.
Every time you take a minute to use one of these tricks, you’ll actually build new pathways in your brain. Over time, strengthening your mind in this way will translate to the rest of your day, and you’ll experience more positive moments with your kids – even without consciously using one of these techniques.
1. Observe Like a Friend
While attending a professional training on mindfulness, I was surprised to learn that approximately 80 percent of our daily thoughts are negative. Many of our thoughts are what’s considered “automatic,” meaning they happen very quickly and originate from our past experiences or circumstances.
Because thoughts are often fast-moving and subconscious, your thoughts can sometimes be inaccurate and unhelpful – to put it mildly. The best way to stop letting unhelpful thoughts control you and your thinking is to step back to observe your thoughts from the outside, through a lens of kindness towards yourself.
Some moms find it helpful to talk to yourself as you would talk to your best friend.
For example, you might say, “Wow, I’m really beating myself up over forgetting the classroom treat. I’m really hard on myself when I make a mistake. I can give myself the same grace and forgiveness that I try to give my child. I’m doing the best I can.”
Or as another example: “I just snapped at the kids over something small, and I think it’s because the living room floor is cluttered with all the kids’ toys. It’s common for clutter to cause stress, and it’s understandable that it’s frustrating me. I can ask the kids to help me tidy up so we can play a quick game of Duck, Duck, Goose.”
2. Forget About Bears
Remember how our brains are wired for survival? This means our minds grab onto the negatives in our environment much easier than the positives. This is how our brains keep us from zoning out while staring at a pretty flower when a bear is chasing us down. But because we aren’t necessarily running away from bears on a daily basis any longer, we need to take control of our unhelpful survival instincts.
To do this, notice and describe the details of pleasant experiences.
For example, while watching your kids play together without fighting, you might notice and describe the bodily sensations: “I feel warm in my chest, relaxed, and full of gratitude.”
3. Think of a Label
In the course of a busy day as a parent, it’s tempting to avoid unpleasant feelings by turning to food, scrolling through our Facebook feed, or even exercise. Noticing negative emotions can be uncomfortable, so we often develop patterns of coping that seem helpful in the moment. But unfortunately, they’re not helpful in the long-term.
The next time you feel a strong emotion, label that emotion and allow yourself to sit with the feeling. Use just a word or two to describe how you’re feeling, starting with “I’m feeling…”
Research shows that the simple act of labeling a strong emotion and acknowledging it can allow the emotion pass through – whereas trying to deny an emotion can derail your good intentions for the rest of the day.
By the way, the phrasing “I’m feeling angry” is important compared to just “I’m angry.” The extra word “feeling” helps you separate the emotion you’re experiencing from your sense of self. It’s a lot easier to overcome a negative emotion when you label it as something you’re feeling instead of something you are.
Before You Go: An Important Note on Mindfulness
To be clear, mindfulness is not a quick one-time fix. You can’t do one of these techniques one time and expect to suddenly enjoy every moment of motherhood from there forward. As anything in life that’s worthwhile, shifting to parenting with mindfulness takes intention and a commitment to enjoying motherhood.
But these small practices give you a practical and meaningful way to slow down your busy days so you can enjoy motherhood again. Parents who use these tricks regularly even report that they feel like they have more time in their days.
More time to breathe in the sights, sounds, and smells of those tiny people who keep you busy from sunup to sundown.
This quote from Jon Kabat Zinn says it best:
Mindfulness gives us an anchor as moms, allowing us to slow down and stand strong amidst the undertow of busyness.
And that is an invaluable gift in our stressed out and fast-paced world: the gift of learning how to enjoy being a mom so we get to the end of every day feeling a sense of deep fulfillment instead of nagging regret.
The research for this article is based on the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training Angela Pruess completed with her therapy clinic.